Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous four words, "I Have a Dream" were seared into the nation's consciousness at the March on Washington in 1963. Yet even as some Americans prepare to celebrate King day, I say some because the King holiday is still by far the least celebrated of the federally designated national holidays, those words have been a blessing and a curse for him. To many this indelibly tagged King as a hopeless utopian with lofty visions of ending war, racism, and poverty but with no concrete program to achieve these aims.
The truth is he wasn't. In a work largely ignored when it was published thirty years ago and forgotten today, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King turned from dreamer to problem solver. But before closely examining King's ideas theres a huge caveat. King can't be fitted into a neat ideological box. There is enough paradox and ambivalence in King's positions for liberals and conservatives to praise and damn. At various times, King railed against and embraced black militants. He advocated conservative self-help programs and socialist wealth distribution. He applauded violent anti-colonial and national liberation movements and championed non-violent change.
The paradox and ambivalence was glaringly apparent in his private life. His near divine moral lashing of America were wildly at odds with his questionable personal sexual conduct. Not surprisingly King's solutions to many of the big ticket racial and class problems that plague America are a conflicting mix of idealism and hard-nosed pragmatism. King can't be blamed for that. Three decades after his death America is still no closer to solving these problems.
Black family crisis. King branded the black family "fragile, deprived and often psychopathic" While his characterization accepted many of the negative myths and stereotypes about black families, King correctly targeted father absenteeism in the black home as a major ill. He made the standard liberal call for more government funded job, education and skills training programs. But he also recognized the importance of values training, discipline, hard work, and the reduction of family violence in resolving the family crisis.
Educational neglect. King did not believe that more funds, smaller classrooms, and better textbooks alone would solve the crisis of the classroom. He called on teachers and administrators to rededicate themselves to the ideal of quality education, and for parents to get more involved in their childrens education. King's proposal for "educational parks," a kind of multi-faceted complex to teach basic skills and advanced studies, anticipated the idea of magnet schools.
Political apathy. The right to vote and electing blacks to political office was not enough for King. He challenged local community groups to conduct on-going voter registration and education campaigns, black officeholders to be "independent, and assertive" in fighting for legislation to improve the plight of the black poor, and for black political organizations voters to build political alliances with labor and other ethnic groups based on their particular needs and interests.
Corporate diversity. The continuing campaign by the NAACP against discrimination in hiring and promotions in corporations closely follows a four-step plan outlined by King. It included: The demand for more jobs and promotions, selected buying campaigns, boycotts, and organized protests, negotiations, and the monitoring of any agreement.
Economic empowerment. King often quipped that it was futile to integrate a lunch counter if blacks couldn't afford to buy a meal. King demanded huge increases in federal funding for job and skills training programs. But he also recognized that government couldn't or shouldn't do it all. He called for "black dollar days" in which blacks purchased goods and services from black businesses and deposited their savings in black-owned banks. In turn, King expected black entrepreneurs to recycle those dollars into education, recreation and social programs for the black poor.
Crime and violence. King understood that the destructive cycle of crime, drugs and violence destabilized black communities. While his first priority as always was for more government-funded job and education programs, he also stressed family values, personal responsibility, and discipline. He urged black professionals to give more of their time and money to employment, educational and recreational programs aimed at "saving" at-risk black youth.
Welfare. King agreed that welfare could breed dependency and discourage personal initiative. He proposed that the government provide direct tax subsidies and tax incentives to corporations to hire and train unskilled workers. This idea was a forerunner to today's federally backed enterprise and empowerment zones, touted by many conservatives as the way to reduce black poverty.
Peace and justice. Kings plea for the end to the grotesque disparities of wealth, militarism, and support of the struggles for racial and economic justice for Latinos, American Indians, and poor whites marked him as much more than a black or civil rights leader. His vision of American democracy continues to influence todays battles for peace and justice for all.
By today's standards King's program may seem piecemeal and patchwork. Almost all have been implemented, tried, discarded, or discredited. But so what? King didn't just dream of a new world, he fought for it. And in an era when politicians and some civil rights leaders believe that grabbing a photo-op or popping a sound bite is leadership, King's vision and program still looks and sounds better than anything many of them offer. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).